Twenty years after a Te Kiri couple began developing a farm health and safety plan, it remains a work in progress.
Ian and Judith Armstrong, who have sharemilkers on two dairy farms of 316 hectares and 80ha and a 225ha runoff, say the plan will continue to evolve because there'll always be changes to staff and equipment within their operation.
Ian Armstrong said health and safety vigilance on farms was never finished. "Think health and safety, accept responsibility for it on your property. Safety is a culture."
A health and safety plan helped staff on his farm go home safely at night. It also helped work on his farm to be done safely and efficiently. "If everyone buys in to safety, there are huge savings in maintenance and operating costs."
Judith Armstrong is puzzled why some farmers don't pay more attention to farm safety. "They have to be smart to operate multimillion-dollar businesses. There are lots of hazards to think about on farms - physical, chemical, biological, mechanical and environmental.
"So why don't farmers think more about the repercussions of an accident on their farm?"
The couple's journey toward a farm health and safety plan began about 1993 when Judith Armstrong was on the board of trustees at Te Kiri School, where their two daughters were pupils.
Health and safety consultant Dora Smith, of New Plymouth, then working for the Department of Labour, addressed the board about putting health and safety policies and procedures in place. Afterwards, Judith Armstrong asked her to provide the couple with farm health and safety advice.
Smith facilitated a workshop where they and their staff of 10 brainstormed ideas and discussed hazards with farm machinery. "The workshop did engage everyone in the process," Ian Armstrong said.
A staff member who had worked as a hunting guide already had a safety focus and motivated everyone.
Each member of the staff took responsibility for identifying hazards associated with two pieces of farm equipment, using Smith's risk assessment templates.
Ian Armstrong said the hazards associated with operating a tractor, for example, could include burns from the radiator or exhaust, or crushing injuries if the power take-off shaft wasn't used correctly.
Judith Armstrong said the process took two years of regular staff meetings where safety plans were presented. "And then the group tore them apart."
Once the plans were approved, operating procedures identifying risks and ways to eliminate, isolate or minimise them were put in place.
"Sometimes the risk can't be eliminated, but the job still has to be done - by isolating or minimising the risk," she said.
Ian Armstrong said the process highlighted the need to train staff to safely operate machinery.
Those competent in using machines demonstrated them and worked with and observed those learning to use them until they could show they could operate them unsupervised.
Judith Armstrong said the couple strongly enforced the rule that farm staff could not operate machinery until they were observed as competent and until they felt competent. "We don't sign it off until they're happy," she said.
Their safety and health plan has been audited three times, demonstrating their commitment to health and safety to farm staff. "We wanted to check that we were walking the talk, that we just didn't have a sign on the gate and a folder in the cupboard," she said. "We're serious about it. An audit is a way to find holes in our system and where we can make improvements."
The couple developed their plan with sharemilkers Tony and Loie Penwarden, now sharemilking at Faull Farms' Tikorangi property. "It worked well with the Penwardens and their staff. Initially we had buy-in because they owned it."
Ian Armstrong thinks farmers' awareness of the need for health and safety plans is growing, in particular in the use of hearing protection and helmets on quad bikes. "But there's still a long way to go. There's a lot of non- compliance out there."
Consultants offering farmers expensive health and safety packages did not help because specific policies and procedures should be developed for each farm. "You have to own it to make it work. Otherwise it just becomes a doorstop."
Smith, too, believes consultants should guide farmers to develop their own plans.
"If farmers won't do that, they won't own [the system] - so I'm not interested in helping."
She agreed some farmers bought health and safety plans which they just stored on a shelf. "All the farmers have done is tick the box. They won't use them."
A farmer's health and safety manual should be a living document that was constantly being revised.
She said farm owners were responsible for ensuring their sharemilkers observed health and safety rules.
Mike and Cheree Hitchcock are variable order sharemilkers in their first season milking 1000 cows on the Armstrongs' larger farm. They're also responsible for the runoff.
Cheree Hitchcock said the couple, who employ six staff as well as relief milkers, acknowledged the need for good safety and health practices.
"We accept the need for safety on the farm, so it's matter of keeping the procedures up-to-date and making sure the machinery is maintained," she said.
"It takes an element of time but we just build it into the day. Everyone wants to go home safely to their families at night."
Smith said in the event of an accident, accountability was determined by the owner of the particular hazard.
For example, a sharemilker usually owned quad bikes so liability for an accident involving one would be theirs.
In some accidents, liability might be shared by the farmer and the sharemilkers, she said.
Think 'safety first' on the farm - consultant
Safety is as important to a farming business as production and profitability, says a Taranaki farm consultant.
"When someone in a dairy operation is injured, the impact is huge," Brendan Attrill said.
The adviser to Te Kiri farmers Ian and Judith Armstrong is impressed with their commitment to farm safety and the plan they have in place.
Attrill said many farming businesses put an insignificant amount of time and money into safety in relation to their multimillion-dollar turnover. "They need to ramp it up."
Recent comments by Independent Safety and Health Taskforce chairman Rob Jager, of New Plymouth, that farmers needed to focus more on safety was the wake-up call the industry needed, he said.
The remarks had triggered discussion in the farming community, and farmers who felt they had been working against the tide when they adopted safety policies long ago appreciated Jager's support.
"A cultural change is needed - waking up in the morning and thinking 'safety first' before you even start a job. 'She'll be right' is way gone.
"Planning, identifying risk and a safety culture can avoid injuries on farms."
Initially, farmers should focus on key areas such as the use of machinery and quad bikes, and on stock that could cause crush injuries, he said.
When farmers resist implementing health and safety practices, Attrill focuses on small steps to achieve improvement. "It could be as simple as a safety meeting once a month. That can lead to the development of safety policies."
Farmers could get help to develop policies and procedures from private companies, farm advisers or Federated Farmers, and by talking with other farmers and neighbours who already had systems in place, he said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
There is a proposal for a $28m sporting complex at New Plymouth's TSB Stadium. Is that a want or a need?Related story: (See story)
Get Taranaki's frequent news and sport updates
Choose an iconic Taranaki photo as wallpaper for your computer